Syracuse Profs Granted Reduced FOIA Fees

     (CN) – Two professors are entitled to lower processing fees for a public records request because its purpose is educational and journalistic, a federal judge ruled.
     Syracuse University professors Susan Long and David Burnham filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in November 2013, seeking electronic data from the ICE database. Long and Burnham’s request was filed on behalf of Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC.
     The specific information sought included all data from a shared ICE operational database, an “integrated decision support system,” and a full legal case management database. The professors also asked for Customs and Border Protection data libraries, the ruling states.
     ICE denied Long and Burnham’s request to be classified as representatives of an educational institution or news media for the purposes of reduced FOIA fees. ICE had previously treated TRAC as both an educational and news media requester but denied the professors’ request this time, claiming they did not adequately explain how the information they sought would further TRAC’s educational and journalist missions, according to the ruling.
     The professors sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a subsidiary, challenging the denial of their classification request.
     On Monday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper granted in part summary judgment for Long and Burnham, ruling that ICE was wrong to deny their reduced fees request.
     “TRAC’s subscription service does not disqualify it from educational requester status so long as the request is being made to further TRAC’s scholarly mission and not principally to enable it to sell the raw data to third parties. The court has already concluded that plaintiffs established TRAC’s scholarly interest in the records,” Cooper wrote.
     “And Long and Burnham disavowed any overriding commercial interest in the records by explaining to ICE that they are not remunerated for their work with TRAC beyond their university salaries and that TRAC, as a non-profit organization, charges subscription fees only to partially defray its operating costs. Accordingly, plaintiffs adequately demonstrated a lack of commercial interest in the requested data and ICE improperly denied their request for educational requester status on that basis.”
     The judge also found that TRAC’s research reports constitute journalistic work.
     “Plaintiffs’ uncontested representations that they intend and have the ability to disseminate news research to the public were sufficient to meet the definition of representatives of the news media,” he wrote.
     Cooper declined, however, to issue an order declaring that TRAC is entitled to educational and news media status for all future FOIA requests because the nature and purpose of its requests could potentially change.
     “Agencies must make an independent fee status determination for each request and, as plaintiffs acknowledge, ICE has granted TRAC preferred status in the past. Plaintiffs therefore have not shown that ICE has violated FOIA by systematically rejecting their fee classification requests,” the judge wrote. “While ICE may have erroneously denied TRAC’s request in this case, TRAC could alter its research activities in the future or request information that is inconsistent with its scholarly or journalistic interests.”

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